To Uranus and Beyond: Strange encounter on the edge of the universe
From the memoirs of Charles Dinglebury, the Victorian inventor and explorer.
There was a great hubbub of excitement in the Gentlemen’s Club when Mrs Wilmslow announced she was offering a prize of 100 guineas to the first person to foot on Neptune – the planet beyond Uranus. My manservant Kettle and I immediately set about building a spacecraft that could propel us into the furthest reaches of the solar system. I was confident that the 100 guineas would be ours!
Building the rocket was easy. The difficult part – with Neptune being 2.7 billion miles from Earth – would be travelling at a sufficient speed that the journey would take weeks rather than lifetimes. Fortunately, I hit upon the idea of the ‘Slingshot Method’ whereby we would ‘sling’ ourselves from planet to planet using the principles of centrifuge. Essentially, this method involves generating immense acceleration by drawing upon the radial force generated by rotating a body – in this case our spacecraft – around a fixed centre – in this case each planet. Simple!
‘Commencing countdown. Engines on. Five…’
Kettle and I adjusted our seatbelts.
Check rear view mirror.
I glanced out of the window and saw the cheering crowds in Hyde Park. Some people were already holding their noses because they had been warned that the stench of burning Fartonium Oxide would be eye-watering.
I looked at Kettle and gave him a reassuring thumbs up.
I hit the ignition button.
‘YEEEAAARRRGGGGHHHHH!!’ I screamed as the rocket shot into the air at a speed far in excess of what my calculations had predicted. My cheeks wobbled in the G-force and my top hat flew off. At five hundred feet I glanced out of the window and noticed the crowd in Hyde Park looked bemused, with their clothes badly charred and their faces covered in soot.
Within minutes we had reached the moon and were circling it in order to generate the slingshot-acceleration effect. It worked perfectly. Coming out of orbit, my monitors told me the rocket was pointing directly at Mars, I hit the accelerate button and we shot off at an even faster speed. ‘YEEEEAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!’
We followed the same slingshot-procedure successfully from Mars to Jupiter, and then from Jupiter to Saturn. Fortunately, the vast distances between the planets meant we had plenty of time to relax between slingshots.
The spacecraft was huge, and mostly empty. Essentially, we were flying in a giant empty warehouse. There was plenty of room to bring back as much of whatever we might find on Neptune – we imagined precious minerals and exotic fruit. But, for now, we were content to race our space buggies around the empty storerooms. We tended to take our meals in the cockpit, surveying the vast inky blackness of space while we ate.
A couple of weeks into the journey, we successfully negotiated our slingshot around Saturn and were heading towards the next planet in the solar system.
‘I can see Uranus,’ I said.
‘Sorry, sir. Me forget tuck in trousers again.’
‘No!’ I laughed. ‘The planet Uranus! I can see it ahead of us!’
Kettle stared for a good while then, with a note of concern in his voice, he commented: ‘That not look like Uranus to me.’
Sure enough, as we drew closer, it was not the planet Uranus that came into view, but a mesmerising kaleidoscope of multi-coloured flickering lights. I felt a strange sense of foreboding. Then a most peculiar thing happened. As our spacecraft passed through the lights, rather than remain on the outside of our ship, the lights instead entered the ship. These particles of light – or whatever they were – clearly did not obey the normal laws of physics. Indeed, they entered the cockpit and passed through our very bodies, causing a strange tickling sensation and causing me to pass out.
When I came to, I found myself in one of the spaceship’s storerooms, sitting in a chair to which I had been tightly bound by ropes. I had a headache and I felt dizzy. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what could have happened. Then I felt most relieved when Kettle walked into the room.
‘Ah, Kettle, my good man, give me a hand. Something very strange has happened, but we will figure it out as soon as I am untied.’
‘Me, untie you? You must be having a laugh!’ said Kettle, in a sneering voice I did not recognise.
I laughed weakly, unsure what sort of prank was being played, and repeated my request.
‘Oh, you don’t like it when the shoe’s on the other foot, do you?’ said Kettle. ‘You’ve kept me in bondage for years – I’ve virtually been a slave to you – but now I’m in charge.’
‘Kettle, are you well? You’re speaking most strangely, and making no sense at all!’ It was only then I noticed he was pointing a revolver at me.
‘Oh, very convenient to pretend you can’t understand,’ he said. ‘Well, you’ll understand soon enough!’
At that point – and the reader will no doubt be as shocked as I was – another Kettle walked into the storeroom.
‘Sir,’ said the second Kettle, calmly. ‘Me apologise for inconvenience. But Kettle has gun and I could not stop him.’
I looked from one Kettle to the other and back again. They were identical except for their voice and deportment. I could see that one was ‘my’ Kettle, but who on earth was this other chap? At that moment I became aware of a groaning coming from behind me, although I was tied up in such a manner that I was unable to turn around and look.
‘Kettle,’ said the Kettle with the gun, ‘why don’t you introduce your Dinglebury to our other friend.’
My Kettle walked behind me. I could hear a chair being pushed forwards and there, also tied to a chair – perhaps the reader will have guessed what’s coming next – was another Dinglebury. It was like looking in a mirror! This Dinglebury had also evidently been knocked out, but now he was coming to. The other Dinglebury, drowsily, then with a growing sense of indignation, first looked at me, then at the ‘new’ Kettle, then at ‘my’ Kettle, then back at me, then again at ‘my’ Kettle, then at the ‘new’ Kettle – this went on for quite a while – then he spat venomously: ‘Kettle, you snivelling wretch, remove me at once from this chair so I can give you a good thrashing. Do it quickly or I will not spare your life!’
‘You don’t frighten me anymore,’ said New Kettle. ‘I’ve been waiting for this moment for years. Finally, I’m in charge. I don’t have to take your orders any more. It is you that will receive a good thrashing!’
‘You’ve always been an ungrateful toady!’ said the other Dinglebury (not me, I would never say such a thing). ‘Come here and I’ll beat you, even with my arms all tied up.’
‘You don’t scare me. If you think…’
And so on.
I looked at My Kettle and we raised our eyebrows and rolled our eyes. Clearly, this other Kettle and Dinglebury had issues.
While their tiff continued, My Kettle deftly crept up behind New Kettle, grabbed his gun, and used it to knock him to the ground.
‘Ah! Well done!’ said Other Dinglebury, but then Kettle also knocked him out using the same method of a blow to the head.
It was a most perplexing situation, but Kettle (My Kettle, obviously) was able to fill me in. ‘It seem when we pass through lights parts of our inner psyches were extracted from our souls and appeared in bodily form,’ he said.
‘Do you mean these imposters are somehow parts of our inner selves?’
‘In one word: yes.’
The explanation – though difficult to believe, let alone understand – satisfied me. When Other Dinglebury and New Kettle awoke, we sat with them and explained the situation. We then embarked on a lengthy process of what today might be termed group therapy. There was anger, there were tears, it was an emotional roller-coaster for us all as we confronted our inner fears, regrets, hopes and dreams. It lasted several days – breaking off only to slingshot around Uranus – but, by the end of it, we all felt a lot better.
With Neptune a few days away, we had time on our hands. The storerooms were so large we were able to set up a tennis court and play doubles. Sometimes we played Dingleburys versus Kettles; other times we played mixed doubles. We had buggy races; sometimes we had two semi-finals then a final; other times we had a league system. We played cards and bridge. We even formed a musical group and wrote a song called ‘Space Waltz’, but that’s a story for another time!
We were now a four-man crew. Neptune was within sight – the eighth and furthest planet in the galaxy, sitting out there on the very outer edge of the solar system, the final planet, beyond which there are no other planets, only a vast inky blackness filled with stars.
A solitary tear of emotion trickled down my cheek as we landed our spacecraft on the surface of Neptune. A truly historic moment.
As I prepared to step out of the rocket in my spacesuit, I uttered the words: ‘This is one small step for a man…’
At that precise moment, the Other Dinglebury, aided by the lack of gravity, somersaulted over my head shouting ‘…one giant leapfrog for mankind – woo hoo!’
By now, the Other Dinglebury was starting to get on my nerves. I’d sat there patiently during group therapy while he’d droned on about how his parents didn’t love him. I had sat with him in the middle of the night, comforting him when he had nightmares. Now he was as happy as Larry, but also – let me just say this plainly – very selfish. And New Kettle was the same. Having counselled them out of their co-dependent relationship, they were now like a couple of spoilt kids. And, sure enough, once Other Dinglebury had leapfrogged onto Neptune, New Kettle quickly followed – flying over me, giving my head an almighty thwack as he did so. And now they were prancing about on Neptune’s boring flat grey surface, doing air-somersaults and having a whale of a time.
My Kettle joined me in the doorway of the spacecraft.
‘They exhausting,’ he said.
We exchanged a knowing look and knew what we had to do.
We quickly locked the spaceship hatch, sat down at the controls, and took off. Down below us on the surface we could see the upturned faces of Other Dinglebury and New Kettle staring at us with a mixture of confusion, anger and panic. We executed the slingshot procedure and, before long, we were on our way to Uranus. I suddenly felt a lot calmer.
Annoyingly, when passing back through the multi-coloured lights, two more of our inner-psyches appeared on board, but happily we were able to despatch them on Saturn.
There is a lot of talk these days about delving into the unconscious and disinterring our demons so that we may look at them, examine them in detail, and ‘cure’ them. But such a process strikes me as naval-gazing and unprofitable. It is far better, in my opinion, to repress and deny any troublesome aspects of our psychology. Or – as in my case – we can leave them at the far end of the solar system! I’m just glad that there are no more planets beyond Neptune, otherwise I would have to pass through those multi-coloured lights again some day.